02 Apr Seth Kitzke on Kitzke Cellars, Upsidedown Wine and so much more.
After checking out the Syrah out back, Seth walked us to the vines out front. Here you walk between 2 vineyards, Kitzke‘s Candy Ridge vineyard and their neighbor Jim’s vineyard. (You can read our previous piece in the back block here.)
Boulders the size of VW buses!
Out front is where Jim’s old vine stuff is as well as a bit of geological history. Seth takes me to a spot where we can see a large piece of granite poking up through the ground. Jim found it while he was planting the vineyard and thought he would pull it out. As he started digging he realized it was bigger than he thought, approximately as big as a VW bus! So…he covered it back up. This large boulder was likely part of the Missoula Flood that rolled through the Columbia Valley at the end of the last ice age. With all that debris being swept down by the floods Seth says “Who knows what’s really under here?” He’s found decomposed granite before. It’s not common in Washington, it’s random, brought in by the floods. This boulder is chipped on the top. From the mower Seth tells me.
Jim’s old vines
The Boulder sits next to a block of chardonnay that he believes is close to 30 years old.
Jim also has cabernet sauvignon & merlot. Seth says they get about 2 barrels of the old vine cab and one of the merlot. Jim originally planted these just to make wine for himself. He now sells to at home wine makers in smaller quantities. He’s been known to even crush the grapes and ship them to Portland for clients.
Cab Franc Pet Nat
We talk about the cab franc on the lawn. These plants get more water than the rest, due to the proximity to the lawn sprinklers. So Seth decided to make a Pet Nat from them. Pet Nat is short for petillant naturel, a light sparkling wine that has become popular (it’s a favorite of mine). It’s made by bottling the wine while it’s fermenting to capture the carbon dioxide, giving it a bit of effervescence.
“I don’t want it (the cab franc) to go to waste just ‘cause it gets too much extra water. When I was looking at the acids, the pH was low. It actually worked out pretty perfect for it.”Seth Kitzke, July 2019
They pick early and don’t thin this as much, so they get a heavier crop. He found the pH was low so that seemed perfect. He says it can be hard to get exact numbers on it, but he shoots for 21 to 22 brix.
Tasting with Seth Kitzke and more
We did a tasting of both Kitzke wines and Upsidedown wines. Everything they do, with the exception of their Method Red is vineyard designate. The Method Red is a blend of cabernet, nebbiolo and either sangiovese or Malbec depending on the year.
We begin with discussing the Rescue Rosé which at this point is the only rosé of nebbiolo in Washington. This is 100% nebbiolo that was grown specifically for this rosé. They crop at a higher tonnage. Seth says they do the opposite of what they do with cabernet sauvignon. Here they water during fruit set, trying to get bigger clusters and bigger berries. More and larger clusters with more acidity is what they want, and they want to slow down the sugar accumulation. This is whole cluster direct press, no skin contact and Seth cuts off the press when he feels it’s starting to be too astringent. He notes that nebbiolo has thin skins, but those skins have quite a bit of tannin. His wine making technique is low intervention so he does not use bentonite for stabilization or fining agents which would pull out some of the astringency.
Color and thin skins in Rosé
It seems strange that thinner skins often give more color. “If you do something like a cab franc that has thicker skins…like Michael Savage, he does a cab franc he does a direct press and it has very little but it has thicker skins”. With nebbiolo, the skins are so thin that it really leeches out the color.
Here is one of those wonderful coincidences in the universe. This wine he was speaking of was Savage Grace Blanc Franc, which we actually tasted later that day, thanks to Jonathan and Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard, we sipped this white cab franc at the Chapel with fresh Rainier cherries, watching sunset…
Seth is looking to make in a Provenće style rosé. To create that big luscious mouthfeel with fruit, but keeping it dry, they do lots of lees aging in stainless.
Why is it called Rescue Rosé?
At Upsidedown Wines they work with a different non-profit with each wine through their Give Back program. For the Rescue Rosé they work with the Humane Society.
The Syrah (artist series)
Seth poured us a syrah, and warned us that it would need to open up. In fact, he swears that this syrah is best on day 3 after having been opened. That’s when it really comes into it’s own. This is from that east/west block of syrah in the back, closest to Candy Ridge. 100% syrah, they did 50% whole cluster in the 2016 vintage. Since then they have opted for 100% whole cluster. It’s neutral oak large format when possible, with lots of lees aging to create a style that feels like Northern Rhône to him.
He loves the sense of garrigue and crunchy red fruit of the Northern Rhône. Seth finds (similar to what we heard about cab sav from Justin Neufeld) that in Washington people are worried about picking early and getting too vegetal a flavor.) They pick this earlier and end up with a syrah that sits at 13.3%.
Oak, but not by choice
They have been integrating some new oak, not really out of choice. He is trying to switch over to 500 liter puncheons and you don’t find those available used. Those puncheons will just have to age and become neutral in his cellar over time.
The syrah was really elegant. Seth says if you pick early you get this coffee/smoky side that is really interesting. He’s not sure what to attribute that too. The spot where this block is, used to be where the neighbors orchard was and nearby was a big gravel pit. The soil there almost looks like asphalt, like black gravel that has been conglomerated.
Cab franc & labels
The cab franc has a great back label with lots of details. They use it on all of their Kitzke wines now. It actually shows you what pH the fruit was picked at. This wine was 92% cabermet franc. Typically it’s close to 100%.
This cabernet franc also has the Candy Mountain label. With the AVA on it’s way, he wanted to showcase where this sense of place in a timeless way.
The labels at Upsidedown Wine are a bit more fun. The artist series switches each year and they even play with bottle shapes.
This cab franc is one of Seth’s favorite wines from this vineyard. It has good acid, a very cab franc feel, but a rich mouthfeel with the fruit. Seth finds it hard to get the balance in Washington. He finds some Red Mountain cab francs to be big, grainy and really rich, without the green bell pepper spice that he loves in a cab franc. He notes also that at the really cold sites the cab franc gets too thing and the green pepper then just dominates. Getting the balance between these two versions can be tough.
He pours for us the 2013 Monte Caramelle, which had been opened the day before. It is 66% sangiovese, 18% cabernet sauvignon and 16% syrah. It’s not a blend they do every year. This is their Super Tuscan style wine. Monte Caramelle, is Candy Mountain in Italian. This vintage was made by Charlie Hoppes from Fidelitas Winery. Seth worked with him to make the Kitzke wines in 2013 & 14 and then in 2015, Seth started to take the reins and adjust the wines more to his own style. The 2013 is inoculated and has a shorter fermentation period. With all of Seth’s wines now they are native yeast and 6-7 days to start fermenting with a slower cooler fermentation.
We get talking about other things. Seth has a busy week scheduled and is sad he couldn’t meet us in the Upsidedown tasting room in Hood River. I ask him how they ended up there.
“I love Hood River. I lived on Mt. Hood for a while 3 or 4 summers teaching snowboarding after highschool. I used to do the…I was a semi-professional snowboarder. I’d teach and work at the summer camp there in the summers and then winters I’d take off from college and go film videos. So Mt. Hood and Hood Rivers always been a spot for me.”Seth Kitzke, July 2019
Seth looks at Hood River as a gateway to Washington Wine. Yes….it’s on the Oregon side, but people fly to Portland and head out to the gorge and that’s where the vineyards start. The Columbia Gorge AVA straddles the state line including both Washington and Oregon.
The Kitzke Tasting Room
For the Kitzke tasting room they wanted to be on the vineyard.
“we want to be able to walk you through the vineyard, we want you to come in the fall, you can taste a sangiovese grape you can taste the grapes and taste the wines and see the similarities side by side. That’s more of our style, cause we’re growers at heart.”Seth Kitzke, July 2019
The benefits to making your wine near the vineyard
Seth lived in Seattle and didn’t want to do the Woodinville thing. He had grown up around the grapes and wanted to be close. He did his 2016 vintage in Seattle “everyday that the truck would bring the grapes was my favorite part. Unloading the trucks you smelled all the fresh cut vines, the dirt…everything. So you kind of felt like you were in the vineyard for a second.”
The downfalls to being so far from the vineyard…you schedule picks 6-7 days in advance and you don’t get to taste the grapes as often as you would like. Picking from the numbers doesn’t always work.
“if you would have picked off of just pH and sugars, in ’15, your wines would have been harsh and astringent and vegetal, because stuff would be 25 or 26 brix, but it would taste bad, the berries were not developed yet. It was so hot, a lot of people were picking at the end of August. If you are not there, tasting that, you don’t know that.”Seth Kitzke, July 2019
On growing in the Gorge and natural vegetation
In the Gorge, it’s a cooler area, consistently windy and of course rainier. He notes that it is so much easier for people to be biodynamic and organic there because with the wind they have less mildew pressure. This year at Kitzke they had to do sulfur sprays every 10 days. They don’t use herbicides, as they are trying to get the natural vegetation to return.
“In our other vineyard you are really seeing it. We are starting to see a lot of sage and yarrow and stuff starting to grow back in the vineyard. I feel like even last year you could get a little more of that in the wine versus clean under rows and vineyard, planted by vineyard, planted by vineyard without any of that natural vegetation carrying through the vineyards.”Seth Kitzke, July 2019
He notes people finding more aromatics in the wines depending on the local vegetation. Like the garrigue you get in wines from southern France.
More to Come…
We did speak to Seth more about a grenache he is making from the WeatherEye vineyard on Red Mountain. This is a fascinating project, more on that soon.
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.